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Stay Human

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With the world regularly looking like it’s going down the toilet, how do we stay positive? That – though asked in far more eloquent words – is the question at the centre of this absorbing documentary.

Michael Franti, best known for his lyrical and musical work with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead, fronts his own story, exploring what it means to be human, and how we can hold on to it in a complicated and unpredictable reality.

Franti takes the audience on a journey through his songs and creative processes and plays them alongside the inspiring tales of people he’s met throughout his career. These are people such as Robin Lim, a midwife who founded special birthing centres in the Philippines following the devastating effect of typhoons. She pinpoints the pain of living in the modern world as originating in how we are born, with the trauma of being surgically removed from the parent a hurt that takes many years to recover from.

The central fight for staying human is, in Franti’s view, the battle between cynicism and optimism. Steve and Hope Dezember are a couple with an integral role in the film, displaying this optimism and love of life, no matter what the circumstances. The pair’s enduring love is reflected in Hope’s commitment to her partner after he developed a diagnosis of the neurodegenrative disease ALS. The challenges faced by the couple, and their strength in enjoying every part of life, is captured beautifully, and served as a starting point for the film project itself.

A love for the whole world, and how humanity can help treat it better, is reflected in the story of Arief Rabik, a Balinese environmental scientist who has come up with an ingenious way of processing bamboo to reduce deforestation.

Franti also travels to Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where he meets two young people, Busisiwwe Vazi and Sive Mazinyo, who have inspired their local community through the power of music and education.

Franti’s own difficulties, including troubles with depression and a complicated relationship with his father and history as an adopted child, are movingly addressed. His passion and constant search for inspiring vision is at the beating heart of this powerful documentary, that shows how and why humans can remain engaged with life.

 
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Free Solo

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Alex Honnold is fully aware of the risks he takes when he climbs massive rock faces without safety harnesses or any form of support. Just one tiny mistake or mistimed judgement would lead to his sudden demise. This stark potential outcome is always present throughout the film; neither climber nor film crew ever shies away from it.

The process of ‘free-climbing’ and Honnold’s career of sheer drops and intense highs is closely examined in this intimate and frequently terrifying documentary.

The film charts Honnold’s progress as he attempts to become the first person to climb the 3,200 foot El Capitan rock-face in California’s Yosemite National Park. Facing this challenge without a rope or harness, Honnold is realistic about the dangers, but is mostly untroubled by the risk before him.

Why climbers, including Honnold, choose to put their lives at such risk is closely examined during this adrenaline-charged film. Honnold undergoes an MRI scan at one stage, and is found to have a dysfunctional amygdala – the part of the brain that helps to process fear and alarm – which may well have something to do with his choice of career.

Ultimately, free climbers love the buzz and adrenaline rush of climbing ever higher. Pushing themselves to the limit to see the rest of the world down below is a calling that they simply cannot resist.

Part of the film that is well drawn is how the intelligent and sensitive Honnold interacts with others; his new relationship with Sanni – someone with a greater emotional awareness than the self-focused free-climber – is examined sensitively.

An inspiring and rewarding journey through the limits of human endeavour, Free Solo is an exhilarating look at a world of immediate danger and committed athleticism. Managing to capture the technicalities of what it’s like to attempt a scaling of such magnitude, alongside a warmly drawn personal character study, the film is a triumph in both beauty and understanding.

 
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The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

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Pre-internet, for many people in Australia, Garry Shandling arrived on our shores in 1986 with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. We hadn’t seen anything like it, as this postmodern take on the sitcom format broke every rule in the book, and the show developed a cult following, with its creator cementing it years later with The Larry Sanders Show between 1992 – 1998.

When Shandling passed away in 2016, there was an outcry from North America, where comedians – through podcasts and online followings – paid their respects to a comedy genius. One of his loudest champions was Judd Apatow, now a comedy industry in his own right, who was given plenty of breaks early on by Shandling, and has now directed this personal, grandiose documentary.

With AAA footage, journals and talent, Apatow has constructed an exhaustive and entertaining film, and unlike his later feature films (This is 40, Funny People), the extraordinary length of the enterprise is actually for the audience’s benefit. When after more than 4 hours, Apatow reveals the secret to Shandling’s being, you would be hard pressed not to tear up at a beautiful but complicated life that you have just had presented before you.

Divided into two eps, the first part charts Shandling’s childhood and family life, the journey to comedy, all the way up until the launch of The Larry Sanders Show. Part two ends with the comedian’s memorial service where anyone who is anyone was moved to laughter and tears in equal measure.

A bunch of talent – Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jay Leno, etc – is interviewed sitting down in conversation with Apatow, who appears often and makes for a sensational, knowing moderator; whilst others – Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, Tom Petty, Chris Rock, etc, etc – are captured in intimate behind the scenes footage during Garry’s often filmed career.

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling fills in a lot of gaps about Shandling’s life and career, especially for Australian audiences, and does it in a dramatic, often hilarious, ultimately profound and highly emotional way. It’s a highly fitting tribute to a comedy genius who touched millions of lives on a macro level, but here we discover the hundreds that he affected daily, and how.

At a minimum, you will be hunting down a DVD copy of The Larry Sanders Show to check out the special features, which this documentary poses was Garry’s final masterpiece.

 
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Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle

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Spanish actor Gustavo Salmerón (Mensaka) takes a break from being in front of the camera for this amusing portrait of his mother, Julita, who, at the age of 81 appears not to have lost any of the fire in her belly that Gustavo and his siblings recall from their youth.

We’re first introduced to the matriarch as she lies in bed contemplating her death. Deciding that she would rather be cremated, she makes an off-camera Gustavo promise that when the doctors declare she’s dead, he must stick a knitting needle into her buttocks just to make sure. If she doesn’t scream, he can burn her. This frankness, laced with a knowing sense of humour, presents itself throughout Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle.

In some ways, Julita feels like the most perfect sitcom character never created. The documentary’s title is born out of the three things she wished for as a child, which she would get, one way or the other, over the next 80 years. She summarises her long marriage to her husband as ‘I’m fat and you’re deaf’, whilst chastising him for not finding her sexually attractive. At night, she falls asleep with an extendable fork next to her bed, so that she can poke him during the night to check if he’s dead. When one of her sons shows concern for her sudden desire to start overeating now that’s she’s over 80, his pleas for rationality are drowned out by her gleefully shouting, ‘bring it on!’ In short, she’s everything we could hope to be as we enter our winter years.

However, Salmerón isn’t just using his film to prop up his mother as a source of amusement for his audience. It’s also an opportunity to give her dignity and allow a voice to be heard that’s not often done so in cinema. Julita talks about her youth and her parents, about how the actions of General Franciso Franco in the Spanish Civil War destroyed her family and her own mental health. When she talks, we see a vulnerability that cuts through her caustic nature. A vulnerability she’s all too aware of, as can be seen when talking about her loss of faith in God, she quickly changes subject to talk about how cute a tiny pair of scissors are.

Apart from two asides, Salmerón stays very much behind the camera, leaving his siblings and father to do most of the interacting with Julita. In doing so, he captures personal moments where it’s apparent that as well as her sharp tongue, the Salmeróns have had to tolerate Juliet’s hoarding which presents itself in a whole warehouse full of items, nearly all of them in labelled boxes, which she refuses to throw away because it would be throwing away a part of her history. And realising, like his mother, that the subject matter is getting too heavy, Salmerón cuts to a scene where he brother questions why Juliet would ever need 20 pairs of maracas. Perhaps, these kinds of tricks undermine what is being said at times, but it seems part and parcel of the family. As if somehow, they’ve leapt out of a Wes Anderson film, eccentricities and all.

Charming and poignant, Lots of Kids, A Monkey and a Castle is one man’s loving tribute to his mother. A love that can be found in every frame.

Screening at ACMI in Melbourne

 
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Minding the Gap

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In the opening of Minding the Gap, we meet Keire and Zack, two young men living in Rockford, Illinois. Along with the film’s director, Bing Liu – who also happens to be their best friend of over a decade – they trespass into a building looking for a cool place to skate. When Zack admits that he has lost his bottle, the other friends agree that their pursuit for a new place to skate is foolhardy and they all merrily skate away. This opening scene provides a succinct introduction to the friendship these three men have. Zack is never berated for his ‘cowardice’ or seen to be less ‘masculine’ than his cohorts. They’re either in this together, tackling what life has in store for them, or they’re out.

Liu’s documentary follows Keire and Zack as they reconcile who they are, with who they want to be, and where they’ve come from. Zack is expecting his first child and appears to be completely unprepared. Still in his early 20s, his main pursuits appear to be beer and setting up an indoor skate park. Keire, meanwhile, is a fiercely talented skater, who doesn’t appear to have the motivation to do much else. From the get-go, skateboarding is seen as an escape from their broken homes and life commitments, but there is so much more to it than that.

Minding the Gap is an astonishingly emotional documentary that works not only as a portrait of rustbelt America, but one which also places friendship and masculinity under the microscope. Both Zack and Keire make covert references to being hit by their parents, where not even the close relationship they share with the director allows them to be too open. This is brought into sharp relief when Liu decides to interview his mother about the domestic violence they’ve lived with, and Zack’s own abusive tendencies rise to the surface after a particularly brutal fight with his girlfriend.

In both instances, we see the director becoming part of the narrative and, as a result, discovering new parts about himself along the way. As Liu interviews his mother, the camera switches to him as he tries to comprehend why someone he loves so much would stay with someone so violent for so long. It’s a heartbreaking sequence which makes Liu’s confrontation with Zack all the more potent. Interestingly, Zack is never portrayed as the documentary’s villain, but neither is he shown to be wholly innocent. His actions and beliefs are shaped by the abuse that he shrugs off consistently. These sequences will likely not settle well with some and that’s understandable; Liu doesn’t appear to want them to.

For Keire, the time spent with him sees the young skater having his eyes opened about race in America, and how he identifies as a black man. Initially portrayed as the wide-eyed innocent of the group, where his need to be liked by everyone means he’ll stay quiet rather than cause a fuss. A particular toe-curling sequence sees Keire looking increasingly uncomfortable as his friends laugh at a comedy routine peppered with racial expletives.

In both men, Liu dismantles who they are without it ever feeling intrusive. Perhaps, this is down to the close proximity they share, and Liu wouldn’t have got the same result without the trust his two subjects have in him.

Regardless, Minding the Gap is a stunning debut that manages to be clinical and frank in its approach to domestic violence, whilst maintaining the feel of a heart-warming coming of age film. It’s going to be really fascinating to see what Liu goes on to do.

 
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Pick of the Litter

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800 dogs are born every year at Guide Dogs for the Blind, one of the leading guide dog schools in America. Of those only 300 will actually make it as a guide dog. Others will be ‘career changed’, meaning they can become house pets, breeders or support dogs for those with other additional needs. Pick of the Litter, a documentary from filmmakers Dana Nachman (Batkid Begins) and Don Hardy Jnr (Love Hate Love), follows five good doggos for the first 18 months of their lives as they’re trained to help the blind.

As well as the new pups, we’re introduced to their trainers; volunteers who can only keep the dogs for a short period of time and must adhere to an arm’s length list of rules. It’s surprising how many trainers one pup can go through, with the dog school chopping and changing regularly in order to find the optimum trainer to get their furry padawans to the finishing line. However, when you’re being called upon to train to obey your every command, whilst simultaneously encouraging it to ignore you in order to save your life – such as if you’re about to walk into traffic, for example – it’s easy to understand why trainers, as well as dogs, don’t always make the grade.

Importantly, Nachman and Hardy never make fools of their failing human subjects, choosing to highlight instead their genuine desire to raise the dogs to the best of their ability.

Admittedly, there is probably something that could be said about the couple that take their dog wine-tasting when all the training becomes too much for them but let he who has not sinned cast the first stone, eh.

The bottom line is, if you love canines and just the thought of seeing puppies brings a big smile to your face then Pick of the Litter is going to snare you into its trap from minute one. More hardened documentary aficionados are likely going to be left wanting a whole lot more. That said, if you go into something like Pick of the Litter expecting the equivalent of Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, then that’s on you.

This documentary is light, it’s frothy and let’s be honest, there’s always a time and place for something like this; prepare to say ‘aww’ a lot.